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Asia-Pacific

Azerbaijan sues French journalists for libel over 'dictator' claims

media Le président Ilham Aliev, à Bakou, le 18 mars 2009. Dictator or democrat? Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliev Reuters

The government of Azerbaijan has sued two French journalists and a French public broadcaster for calling it a "dictatorship". The case went to court on the day several newspapers published detailed claims that the oil-rich country's elite runs a 2.5-billion-euro slush fund to buy influence abroad and launder money.

Azerbaijan's case went to court in Versailles on Tuesday, as France's Le Monde, Britain's Guardian and several other papers headlined the slush-fund charges.

Press-freedom campaign Reporters Without Borders says this is the first time a libel case by a state against an individual has reached a French court.

Azerbaijan is demanding one euro in symbolic damages - as well as sanctions by France's broadcasting watchdog, the CSA - but the accused could also face fines of 12,000 euros.

Dictatorship accusation

They are presenter Elise Lucet, reporter Laurent Richard and France 2, the channel that screened Mon Président est en Voyage d'Affaires (My president is travelling on business) in September 2015.

Introducing the broadcast, Lucet described Azerbaijan as a "dictatorship, one of the most ferocious in the world" and in the course of his report Richard described Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliev as a "dictator" and a "despot".

Lucet, a well-known newsreader and investigative journalist who faces complicity charges in the case, is particularly attached to the Cash Investigation programme, which aired the report and has broken a number of stories critical of the French and international establishment.

Azerbaijan's lawyer, Olivier Pardo, told the AFP news agency the report was "not information but denunciation" and accused Cash Investigation of sensationalism and bias.

Controversy over press freedom

While Reporters Without Borders places the country 162nd out of 180 in its press-freedom index and says that at least 16 journalists, bloggers and collaborators were in jail as the case went to court, Pardo said Azerbaijan has nearly 500 papers and has moved over to a multi-party system since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Richard and his camera operator were detained and searched by men in plain-clothes as they left Azerbaijan in 2014.

The country is currently appealing against the dismissal of a case against French MP François Rochebloine for describing it as a "terrorist state" over the conflict in the Armenian-majority enclave of Nagorny-Karabakh.

A Versailles appeal court in May decided that a foreign state cannot sue an individual for libel, as did a Paris court in relation to Morocco's case against boxer Zakaria Moumni, who claimed to have been tortured in his country of origin.

Morocco, too, is appealing.

Azerbaijan's French friends

Azerbaijan's lawyers reportedly intended to call French MP Jean-François Mancel as a witness.

Mancel is president of the Friends of Azerbaijan Association (AAA), the French arm of Azerbaijan's "caviar diplomacy" that aims to counter the influence of the Armenian diaspora, which has a large presence in France, on the Nagorny-Karabakh question, improve trade and speak up for the "pearl of the Caucasus".

Along with several other MPs, three former ministers from Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007-2012 presidency - Rachida Dati, Thierry Mariani and Jean-Marie Bockel - are members of AAA.

They have been invited on "cultural trips" to Azerbaijan and, in some cases, their constituencies have benefited donations and investments from the country, according to Le Monde.

Mariani, a former AAA president, dismissed questions about presents of caviar as "ridiculous", saying he had received some "really small tins", worth less than the amount of donations MPs are supposed to declare, of the delicacy.

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